If you’re like most of your peers, you have a wish list of tools and tactics you’d love to implement on your site. And if you’re like most of your peers, your resources are finite, preventing you from getting everything on your list. Prioritizing is key — but how do you determine which tactics should take precedence? By looking at what shoppers want and how other merchants make the user experience more efficient and the channel more sustainable.
From the shoppers’ perspective, the issues are speed and ease of use; for merchants, it’s about striving to meet customers’ demands and make a profit. With the customer in control of the shopping experience, merchant initiatives focus on control, convenience, creativity, convergence, and community — the five C’s.
Findings from the E-tailing Group’s Ninth Annual Mystery Shopping Study, in which we shopped from 100 e-commerce sites during the fourth quarter of 2006, show how merchants are differentiating their sites using features and functionalities within these themes.
From features that foster individual ways of searching, sorting, editing, comparing, and viewing products to tools that facilitate customization of products, merchants are enabling shoppers to manipulate attributes.
The “view all” Web page option resonates with both power shoppers and browsers, as it provides an overview of all product offerings within a category or subcategory. This tool was deployed on 36% of the sites visited.
What more control could a customer want than to be able to design his own product? Yes, it is a category-centric tool, but even so 29% of the sites visited offered customers this capability. At the Build-a-Bear site, for instance, you could add sound cards to your stuffed animals; apparel brand Timberland provided clear step-by-step instructions for building custom boots.
More merchants are adding features designed to simplify online shopping. For instance, 25% of the Websites visited during the fourth quarter of 2006 accepted preorders, up from 16% the previous year. Meanwhile, 81% of the merchants allowed customers who had made an online purchase to return the item to a store, compared with 72% in 2005. And 27% of the Websites (compared with 16% the previous year) enabled customers to look at recently viewed products on all levels, from the home page through the product page to the shopping cart.
Speaking of shopping carts, perpetual carts offer the utmost in convenience. This tool was on 55% of the sites visited, and it will likely become the standard.
Product pages on Backcountry.com’s site offer an especially comprehensive cart, with links to size charts and reviews, and the ability to e-mail a friend. Gift options and a free gift are clearly offered. And a summary of what’s in the cart, including item pricing and a running total, appears on every page as one continues to browse the outdoor-apparel site.
Creative initiatives on the part of the merchants visited were quite diverse, as is fitting given that brand and category should dictate the tone. In general, upsells and cross-sells on product pages are the rule; 90% of the sites included them. And themed areas have more than doubled in popularity, with 59% of the sites featuring them, compared with 28% of those visited the previous year.
The Gap’s Trend Report is a particularly effective example of a themed area. The layout uses distinctive fonts, illustrations, and magazine-quality photos to make a fashion statement while prompting shoppers to “shop now.” The navigation menu promotes gift cards as well as “top picks,” and a bottom-of-page banner calls attention to its petite/tall assortment.
Introducing interim product pages with recommendations after the customer adds an item to his cart but before he proceeds to checkout is a relatively new tactic, but already 26% of the sites visited had it. Discounter SmartBargains.com used this feature to “complete the look” as well as to present related bargains. Promotional merchandising ploys included showing comparable pricing and savings percentages and flagging low inventory with text such as “almost gone, only 4 left.”
“Let’s make a deal” is the mantra not only for outlet sites such as SmartBargains.com but for most merchants as they strive to appeal to price-driven shoppers with strategies that go beyond sales and specials. Reliance on the Website as a primary liquidation vehicle for all channels is resulting in revamped outlet/clearance areas with a greater merchandising focus. Home decor cataloger/retailer Crate & Barrel, one of the first merchants to introduce an outlet at retail, has an outlet microsite too, where products are grouped by “New to Outlet” and “Just Marked Down” as well as by standard categories.
The convergence of shopping and media channels is having a very real affect on e-commerce. Bridging the absence of tactile and dimensional encounters in the virtual space are tools and features that create — or improve upon — real-world experiences. Little wonder, then, that use of rich media continues to escalate, especially as broadband penetration continues to increase.
The site of Levenger, a cataloger of “tools for serious readers,” is a prime example of the robust aids that shoppers now find at their disposal. With one mouse click you can see a product larger or from different angles, change its color, check out specs and options, view an interactive buying guide, read articles and reviews, browse among similar products, show the item to a friend via e-mail, and of course, buy it — with a deferred-payment plan if desired.
Some believe video online will come into its own this year. Growth of multimedia is apparent within guides and how-to content — 67% of the Websites visited offered it, compared with 59% the previous year. Merchant initiatives such as “Cabela’s Television” appeal to this demand with entertaining streaming video supplied by sponsors and customers.
Social networking applications are making their way onto e-commerce sites. Though site blogs and community boards aren’t prevalent yet — only 8% of the merchants visited offered the former and 11% the latter — look for them to become more common.
Bookseller Barnes & Noble offers on its site a Book Clubs section that includes message boards so that participants can communicate with other readers as well as with best-selling authors. The Book Clubs Blog enables customers to communicate with the site’s editors, who in turn can query visitors about topics that can later serve as input for decisions regarding site changes.
This trend toward a greater sense of community online has led to an increase in refer/e-mail a friend features, which appeared on 68% of the sites, up from 60% the previous fourth quarter. Ratings and reviews have become more common as well, appearing on 38% of sites, up from 32%. Some merchants are even offering incentives to shoppers for completing product feedback forms.
Beyond the Cs
Bells and whistles such as Cabela’s Television and user-submitted video reviews (see Buy.com) hark back to the heady early days of the Internet. Now that merchants can deliver an experiential feeling online, a critical question remains: Does it help sell more products? Yes, there is branding value. And certainly, relative to shopping ease and category expertise, the features on a site do help differentiate one seller from another. But, as has always been the case, merchants need to evaluate and prioritize what it takes to deliver the experience customers want while being cognizant of running a sound business.
Lauren Freedman is author of It’s Just Shopping and president of the E-tailing Group, a Chicago-based e-commerce consulting firm. A complete list of all the metrics benchmarked in the Ninth Annual Mystery Shopping Study can be found at www.e-tailing.com.
|Online outlet/clearance area||73%||51%||Critical to liquidation|
|Source: The E-tailing Group’s Annual Mystery Shopping Study, 2006-2005|
|Zoom||81%||79%||Becoming a norm|
|Alternate views||57%||45%||Emulates offline|
|Color change||46%||34%||Extends confidence to buy|
|3D imaging||14%||4%||Category specific|
|Audio||41%||15%||Augments the experience|
|Streaming video||38%||20%||Broadband enabled|
|Source: The E-tailing Group’s Annual Mystery Shopping Study, 2006-2005|